Supporting School Communities in the Aftermath of a Mass Tragedy

On February 14, 2018, a mass shooting occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Lisa Wobbe-Veit’s son was on campus during the lockdown.

While waiting for news about her son, Wobbe-Veit reached out to school and local officials via email. In the months following the tragedy, Wobbe-Veit, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, volunteered to help facilitate communication between the families most affected by the shooting, which resulted in 17 deaths and numerous injuries.

Currently, Wobbe-Veit serves as a trauma and recovery consultant for Broward County Public Schools and as a family liaison at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“My role began on the day of the tragedy,” Wobbe-Veit stated. “As an academic, my goal was to provide a wealth of resources for discussing mass violence with children.”

Michelle Kefford took over as principal of Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 2019, assuming a crucial role in the healing process for the school community.

During a virtual K-12 School Safety Summit hosted by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Kefford and Wobbe-Veit shared how their combined expertise in school leadership and mental health contributed to the recovery efforts.

“Our collaboration and joint efforts were key in leading the recovery,” Kefford explained. “Lisa had never been a school administrator, and I had never dealt with a traumatic event or worked as a mental health professional.”

Effective Strategies for Addressing Mass Trauma

Kefford and Wobbe-Veit developed a model that can guide other school leaders who face the aftermath of a mass school tragedy.

By leveraging their different perspectives, they ensured the success of the model in the healing process of their own school community. Kefford suggested that school leaders who wish to implement this approach should assemble a team consisting of a mental health professional and a school leader or business official.

In the ongoing aftermath of the tragic event, Wobbe-Veit focused on developing support plans for the 33 most affected families, who lost children or had children injured. Meanwhile, Kefford worked on supporting the entire school community, enhancing campus safety, and restoring a sense of joy to the school environment.

Overall, their model incorporates three fundamental concepts: facilitating communication, offering psychological first aid, and employing a situational and holistic approach.

Kefford emphasized that communication must be constant, consistent, and uniform. This is why she and Wobbe-Veit collaborate on all communication related to the healing process. They ensure that messages are sensitive, timely, and accurate, whether they are intended for families or the entire school community.

According to Wobbe-Veit, school leaders must be mindful of the language they use in school messaging. She stressed the importance of looking at everything through a mental health lens, considering the potential distress certain words might cause to those who have lost a loved one to gun violence.

The model also includes psychological first aid, an evidence-informed approach aimed at addressing individuals’ short-term and long-term needs. To accomplish this, leaders must listen, protect, connect, model, and teach.

Furthermore, school leaders should continuously assess and evaluate how they provide support to individuals, ensuring they are connected to the necessary long-term resources. It’s vital that leaders inform their staff about psychological first aid to ensure supportive interactions within the school community.

The final aspect of the model involves situational and holistic approaches. Kefford highlighted the importance of flexibility and sensitivity, as each tragedy and healing process is unique. School leaders must be willing to adapt their approach accordingly and ensure that the needs of all individuals, including staff, are met.

“Every tragedy and trauma event is different, with unique needs and details,” Kefford emphasized. “We must remain flexible and sensitive to the specific situation at hand.”